Birthday boy Jack Stephens keeps Saints marching on

Defender scores early on as new Watford boss Javi Gracia starts with cup exit

Jack Stephens celebrates scoring in the FA cup fourth-round tie against Watford at St Mary’s Stadium. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Jack Stephens celebrates scoring in the FA cup fourth-round tie against Watford at St Mary’s Stadium. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

 

Southampton 1 Watford 0

Jack Stephens marked his 24th birthday with his first goal for Southampton as they progressed to the fifth round of the FA Cup with a 1-0 home win over Watford.

The visitors’ new head coach Javi Gracia was overseeing his first fixture since his arrival to succeed the sacked Marco Silva, but their form remained unconvincing as they fell to a ninth loss in 13 games.

After Stephens’s early goal they played with the same lack of conviction that had contributed to Silva’s dismissal, finishing fortunate not to lose by a wider scoreline to a team also struggling, and who in that same period have won only twice.

If Watford had hoped to capitalise on the potential lift Gracia’s appointment could inspire, they ultimately wasted their finest chance shortly after kick-off when in the fourth minute they conceded the opening goal.

Nerves and a lack of confidence have undermined Southampton this season as much as the absence of a reliable goalscorer, so in taking such an early lead they quickly settled in front of what has been their restless support.

Ryan Bertrand found Shane Long from a left-wing free-kick after Daryl Janmaat had fouled Sofiane Boufal, and the forward struck towards goal, where goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis saved with his feet as far as Stephens, who then routinely poked the rebound in from close range.

The past 12 months had already been positive for Stephens, who amid an injury to Virgil van Dijk and then his recent transfer to Liverpool had established himself in central defence.

That his fortunes had improved while his club’s had declined may not have been lost on him, so it will have encouraged that they were thereafter largely in control.

Cedric Soares had come closest to doubling their lead when shooting just wide of the left post from close range before a brief exchange with Richarlison over an attempted block when, on the stroke of half-time, the Brazilian almost scored a brilliant but undeserved equaliser.

Seeing Alex McCarthy off of his line, the forward floated a delicate chip from 25 yards and towards the top-right corner, from where the back-pedalling goalkeeper did well to recover and tip over.

Long had twice more threatened when, shortly after the hour mark, the influential Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg went closer still when shooting against the underside of the crossbar with a powerful first-time effort, also from 25 yards.

That a second goal did not follow is something Southampton manager Mauricio Pellegrino hopes will be corrected by the arrival of new club-record signing Guido Carrillo, the striker who made his debut from the bench in the 83rd minute.

He had too little time to make a significant impact, but it will have been refreshing for Pellegrino that, as the final whistle neared, it was the visiting supporters, after a late miss from Jerome Sinclair, and not the regulars at St Mary’s expressing their dissatisfaction.

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